After decades of filling prescriptions of antidepressant, mood stabilizing, and antipsychotic drugs, I finally rejected conventional psychiatric wisdom. Using ancient methods, I went against doctors’ orders to heal. Through these methods, I treated the root cause, not merely the symptoms. I charted my journey in a series of essays.
I write bi-monthly articles, publish podcasts, and host workshops on healing, recovery, and the root causes of pain. Sign up for two stories per month, that’s it. I charted my journey and this first article is Complex PTSD: When Your Therapist Thinks You May Be F*cked.
My life is divided into two life spans: before breathwork (BB), and after breathwork (AB).
My arms and hands tingle. My body pulses from head to toe. A sensation of powerful energy flows in and around me. My left shoulder tightens and constricts, it feels stressed. I massage my aching shoulder. Comforting my clavicle, my mind is confused, yet certain. My body is frightened, yet self-assured. My shoulder is tight, yet free. It is overwhelming, yet soothing. My soul jumps out of my body.
An increasing itching sensation hangs around my left temple. I cannot hold back from satisfying the itch. Placing my fingers on the temple, I gently massage the itch in small circles. My brain calls for me to heal it. My left temple pulses again and again. These sensations overwhelm my senses. My body needs reassurance that it is okay. My brain needs to be looked after. Then my shoulder needs help again. I triggered myself. I go deep into my subconscious to find answers to questions that I didn’t know I sought out.
What is going on with my body?
Taking a Breathwork Class
I am in the middle of a breathwork class. The teacher, Marlize Jourbert, monitors the nearly darkly lit room of forty students. Loud rock music and rapid breathing flow around my fellow breathers. Faint ceiling lights shine on the floor, while battery-powered candles lay in the front of the room. Folding chairs cover the floor, seemingly bolted to the ground. Wearing blue jeans, an unzipped green hoodie, and colored socks, I am laying on my back. My glasses and baseball cap rest by my side. My workday is over. I’m relaxed on a Tuesday night at 7pm in West Los Angeles.
After getting diagnosed with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD), I felt like a frozen caveman getting thawed out. I had recently stopped taking a psychiatric mood-stabilizing drug, Lamictal. Frustrated by the mental health industry, I looked to alternative and more spiritual methods to heal. After paying tens of thousands of dollars in therapy and psychiatry bills over the decades, I felt abandoned by Western medicine. For years, I numbed the symptoms of my problems, while living in denial that there was a root cause. On the surface, psychiatric drugs improved my mood, even though the drugs covered up the deeper causes of my pain. Beneath my body lived stored-up, unprocessed trauma from my past. Like a caveman, parts of my body and psyche were frozen inside. As the ice melted, decades of triggers jolted throughout my body, head to toe.
How to do Breathwork
When I’m in a room practicing breathwork with strangers, I am vulnerable. Hearing people cry, screaming a lion’s roar in unison, and letting out belly laughs together helps to move the energy. Whether it’s from the heart, shoulders, or temple – our bodies are like a reservoir for trapped emotion. Breathwork flushes my system, clearing the reservoir.
I breathe in two deep inhales. First in the belly, then in the chest. Then I exhale it all out. I’m breathing in a rhythmic breathing pattern.
I repeat these three steps non-stop for twenty to twenty-five minutes.
- I inhale in the chest.
- I inhale in the belly.
- I exhale.
I set an intention beforehand to direct the course of the practice. I prefer an I am statement. Saying statements like: I am loved, I am safe, and I am peaceful work as my intentions. And by breathwork, I mean it. In the classes, the teachers blast loud music, while they help us focus on breathing. We usually pause breathing about four to five times during each session. During these pauses, the teachers ask to let out a big belly laugh or scream at the top of our lungs, in order to release anything that may be holding us back. It is not uncommon to cry or hear fellow breathers weeping beside me during the course of a session.
My eyes are closed. In a dream-like state, my body is still. My mind is resting.
I feel pain.
I comfort myself.
I feel safe.
Whether it’s to eliminate old belief systems, heal trauma, or temper emotional suffering, breathwork allows me to hit a reset button. I stay mindful of my intention as I go. During classes, I receive flashbacks to emotional memories from the past. I process them in the moment, sometimes decades after the fact.
How Breathwork processes past emotions
I am loved.
I’m thinking about my Grandfather Roger who had a heart attack before I was born. I recall a story of my Dad giving his own father CPR after he collapsed in the family’s business office. Feeling love for my Dad, I acknowledge his pain, hurting, and suffering. I empathize with the unspoken trauma my Dad experienced. Repeating I am loved. I am loved. I am loved. My heart opens with self-love.
I am loved.
I’m eleven, riding my DiamondBack dirt bike in the streets of Des Moines, IA. At my friend Cameron’s house, we play The Legend of Zelda on Nintendo. I overhear Cameron talking to his older brother about how he doesn’t think I’m cool. It hurts my feelings. I haven’t thought about that moment in decades. I comfort myself, saying it’s okay. Grieving for that sad child in my past, my left shoulder relaxes.
I am loved.
I’m a second-grader. Asking my Mom to spend the night out at my friend Todd’s house to watch Saturday Night wrestling. She says no. She would rather Todd come to our house. My Mom controls where I sleep. I cannot change her mind. I haven’t thought about this moment since it happened. I say to myself, “It wasn’t my fault. It was never my fault.” My left temple itches.
I am loved.
Practicing Breathwork in groups
Back in the studio, Marlize pumps up a song by Radiohead. She walks around the room like a college football coach, providing inspiration, motivation, and helping us to stay focused with words of encouragement. “You’re good enough!” Marlize yells to the room. “Stop playing small,” she shouts out a few minutes later. Constantly inspiring us, saying, “You guys are doing great,” and, “I’m so proud of you.” I continue to massage my left temple. Feelings of energy slide down the side of my face. The triggering in my left shoulder continues. The knot is increasing.
Marlize then tells the room: “Surrender to the moment. Keep it up.” Not knowing what to surrender, or what she precisely means, I massage and sooth my body. I continued to breath. It feels like I could run through a wall when working with Marlize. I am ready to trust her with my life. She wants us to heal.
What is Breathwork?
According to one of my teachers Shanila Sattar, breathwork “helps you to achieve different altered states of consciousness. In these states of consciousness, you can unblock anything in your body that’s keeping you stagnant.” She says people “often have huge breakthroughs because they are holding on to a lot of stuff that is emotionally captured in the cellular level of the body.” She adds, “what breathwork helps with is stress, anxiety, trauma, pain, and anger. It helps process emotions physiologically in the body.”
Breathwork feels like a compounding trigger. Complex PTSD is a brain dysfunction that comes with emotional flashbacks. In Triggers, Marshall Goldsmith defines a trigger as “any stimulus that reshapes our thoughts and actions.” Triggers can be conscious or subconscious. In breathwork, I process complicated and repressed childhood feelings of abandonment from parents arguing, my Dad yelling, my Mom controlling me, and all the chaos swirling around my life. I carry these moments from my childhood.
Throughout my life, I experienced fight or flight feelings in my mind and body. The Cleveland Clinic defines a fight-or-flight response as “a stress response, triggered by a release of hormones either prompting us to stay and fight or run away and flee.” During my recovery, I realized I sometimes I overreact to stressors that are not life-threatening. Whether it is getting into fight or flight over a boss yelling at me, an accusatory co-worker pressuring me, or a family member trying to control me, I trigger myself.
Why Breathwork feels like five years of therapy in one session
Many instructors call breathwork five years of therapy in one session. Breathwork teaches me to release stress in a natural way – through exhaling. A good breathwork class is all about breathing deeply, yelling, crying, sweating, laughing, and allowing stored-up pain to leave my body. These classes give me space to grieve. I vary my breathwork from doing it once a week, to going through 30 sessions in 30 days, to practicing every morning before I get out of bed. It helps me conjure up old painful memories and process them appropriately. While therapy can help with discussing past feelings, breathwork goes deep into your non-verbal memories.
Breathwork is about soaking in the tears from your wet eyes, screaming at the top of your lungs, and feeling pulsations all around your body.
- It’s about giving yourself permission to belly laugh.
- It’s about breathing like you want to live.
- It’s about danger, and risking the feelings of your old wounds surfacing.
It’s about past heart-wrenching break-ups popping into your mind, your parents’ argument when you were five years old, and traumatic moments coming into the television of your mind.
Your first ten minutes may send you to the darker regions of your subconscious, and your last fifteen ten may transport you into a state of indescribable ecstasy.
Modern medicine has never taken me to a place where breathwork has in my recovery. Breathwork helps the physical body recover. Simple actions of courage, strength, and hope can help us to heal better than any “miracle drug” from a consumption-driven corporation. It’s a natural medicine to me. I practiced it over 150 times in 2020.
Breathwork practice heals your pain, stress, and trauma. It could bring you to the same too. Sign up to take a class with me Thursdays at 6:30 PST.
- Listen to David Elliott’s breathwork meditations on Spotify
- Practice live online breathwork meditation with Marlize Jourbert, Shanila Sattar, Stephanie Carson, and Jenna Reiss
- National Institute of Health Breathwork study: Breathing-Based Meditation Decreases Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms in U.S. Military Veterans